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  • Writer's pictureThe Ascend Fund

Cost of Success – Political Fundraising as a Barrier to Equity

Women candidates running for office in recent years have made headlines for outraising men. In 2018, women running for Congress raised an average of $1,675,000 while men raised $1,537,000. [1] This relatively recent trend has contributed to the modern success of women candidates – who now hold 31% of state legislative seats and 26% of congressional seats. Given that the candidate who spends the most wins in more than 90% of congressional races, leveling the playing field is crucial to achieving a truly representative democracy. [2]

Historical Challenges

Until very recently women have long been at a disadvantage when it comes to fundraising. And even despite this recent progress, nine out of ten women still list fundraising as a key factor in their decision whether to run for office. [3] Many women lack confidence and believe that they don’t have the network or connections to successfully raise the funds they need to win, which is a major deterrent to running for office. In addition, women raise funds through smaller donations, so they need to work harder than men to raise comparable sums.

Roadblocks to women’s fundraising success are far-reaching and often structural, including lack of campaign finance regulation, conscious and unconscious bias, and incumbency advantage. These barriers can be particularly difficult to overcome for women of color and Republican women who lack access to traditional fundraising networks.

"Money is a huge barrier,” Gloria Steinem, renowned feminist and political activist, has said. “I’ve raised money for candidates who, if I’m raising money for them, probably are all the same on the issues. But if I’m raising money for a man running for the Senate, someone will give me $1,000; if it’s a woman, they’ll give me $200 or $300. Not consciously, but unconsciously.” [4]


Modern Successes

In 2018 and 2020, women significantly outraised men at the federal level and nearly closed the fundraising gap on the state level as well. Women have long been at a disadvantage when it comes to fundraising, lacking access to crucial networks and donors, and continued success will be crucial to ensuring that women achieve political parity.

In recent years, women have raised significantly more than men due to a variety of factors – including the wave of activism following the 2016 presidential election. In addition, women have become an increasingly powerful donor bloc and in turn give far more to women candidates.

Women have increasingly become a political force to be reckoned with – nearly doubling their political giving from 2012 to 2020. In 2012 women donors gave $460,202,465 to political candidates while in 2020 they gave $831,305,761, an increase of more than 80% over just eight years.

Women, however, are still underrepresented in the donor class overall and give less on average than men, especially at the mega-donor level. In 2020, women made up 45% of donors to political campaigns, but gave just 31% of the total campaign contributions. [5] Given that women give more to women candidates than men, women candidates are taking in smaller donations.

In 2018, only 20 of the top 100 campaign and/or Political Action Committee (PAC) donors were women. [6] Even the women who could be political mega-donors are not invited to the table or approached by candidates and PACs. [7] When women aren’t involved in the process of supporting candidates, the donor class is not representative of women’s interests, which affects who is elected and, eventually, what policies they implement.


Persistent Barriers

There are numerous barriers that hinder women’s political fundraising success. Women candidates have long struggled to reach large individual donors and access PAC funding. Structural reforms such as campaign finance reform could level the playing field, as well as cultural changes that alter donor and PAC behavior and encourage the funding of women and people of color.

PACs as a Barrier to Equity

PACs have long been a powerful player in campaigns and PAC dollars remain a key barrier to equity. The average winner of a congressional seat in 2020 raised 32% of their total campaign funds from PACs. [8] Men receive a disproportionate amount of funding from PACs, even as women-focused PACs like EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women, and E-PAC, which supports Republican women in primaries, become increasingly powerful. This is in large part due to the fact that PACs overinvest in incumbent candidates – a group that is overwhelmingly white and male.

This is especially relevant for Republican women, who receive far less support from women-focused PACs. [9] Despite the creation of new organizations like Rep. Elise Stefanik’s E-PAC investing in Republican women, Democratic giants like EMILY’s List and Elect Democratic Women, have much larger budgets to invest in Democratic women. EMILY’s List raised more than $80 million for the 2020 election cycle, compared to E-PAC which raised just over $1 million. [10]

As long as PACs continue to invest in candidates that they deem “safe investments” – who are usually incumbents, and therefore, overwhelmingly white and male – it will be difficult for women to have equal access to PAC funding. To counter this adverse effect, PACs can work with interest groups to build a more diverse field of candidates and expand the scope of their investments. In addition, more PACs specifically focused on women are needed to expand the pool of PAC funding available to women.

Women Raise More, But Take in Smaller Donations

In addition to lack of access to PAC funding, data shows that women raise fewer high dollar donations, relying instead on more small dollar gifts. In 2018, small dollar donations (contributions of less than $200) accounted for 18.7% of overall Democratic fundraising and 9% of Republican fundraising. Women candidates, however, received more of their funding from small dollar donations – with Democratic and Republican women relying on small dollar gifts for 20% and 17% of their funding respectively.

Having to raise more smaller donations forces candidates to spend additional time and resources fundraising, and less time on other crucial aspects of the campaign.

“We work twice as hard,” Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has said about these challenges. “At some point that may change, but we have to work twice as hard.”


Uneven Fundraising Successes

Systemic Barriers to Funding for Women of Color

Women of color running for office have had even less equal access to funding—which is much more readily available to those who are white, wealthy, and well-connected.

In 2018, for example, white women candidates raised an average of more than $2 million, far more than any other race of women candidate, except the two Indigenous women who ran powerful campaigns in highly competitive districts. White candidates have traditionally had more access to wealthy networks of donors and generational wealth, and political party officials often recruit and support candidates that are traditionally thought of as “electable,” a group they define as largely white and wealthy, and male.

Black women raised 55% less than white women and have far less access to large individual donors, who give disproportionally to white candidates. Black women raised an average of just $395,102 from large individual donors, compared to $1,101,820 for non-Black candidates. [11]

Given the outsized effect of fundraising on election results, electing Black, Indigenous, and women of color will require institutional donors to upend their traditional giving behavior and invest far more in women of color. Political parties must also do more to bolster the success of women of color by introducing them to donors, amplifying their candidacies, and supporting women of color when they get involved in primaries.


Systemic Barriers in Action: Cynthia Wallace

Cynthia Wallace ran for Congress in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District and garnered endorsements from key players such as EMILY’s List and then-candidate Joe Biden. She raised just over $800,000 for her campaign, compared to her white, male, and incumbent opponent, Dan Bishop, who raised more than $4,000,000. [12]

She ended up losing the race by just 11 points.

“I talk with Black female candidates all over the country, and they all share the same problem: It’s fundraising,” Wallace said after her campaign. “It’s getting access to networks and to donors, and it’s a great disappointment with the party for Republicans or Democrats.”


Party Differences in Fundraising Success

Fundraising disparities also exist across party lines. Most of the recent increases in fundraising have been by Democratic women. In 2020, Republican men continued to outraise Republican women, despite the opposite trend in Democratic circles. One cause of this is likely the fact that there were so few Republican women in Congress prior to the 2020 election cycle. Incumbents raise far more than challengers and only 21 Republican women were incumbents in 2020, compared to 105 Democratic women.


Susan Brooks on Fundraising Barriers

Former Representative Susan Brooks, who serves on The Ascend Fund Advisory Committee, led Congressional Republican recruitment in 2020 as the Recruitment Chair of the Republican Congressional Committee and intentionally recruited more women and people of color to run. There are now 38 Republican women in Congress, in large part due to her efforts.

She has spoken extensively about the barriers Republican women face – especially around fundraising and in primaries:

“The women in the Republican Party have not been supported financially and have not had the fundraising success that many of our male counterparts have." [13]


Slower Progress at the State Level

While women overall outraise men when running for federal office, women still raise less on average when running for state seats. In 2012, men candidates for state level races (state legislative and state-wide) raised an average of 19% more than women, in 2016 14% more, and in 2020, just 6% more. [14] While this represents a closing gap, it is still a key barrier. At the state level, candidates who raise the most win their elections 83% of the time. [15]

Women running for federal office in 2018 and 2020 received extensive media coverage as the “Year of the Woman” and “Year of the Republican Woman” swept into record numbers of women into Congress. State legislative races received far less attention and funding. The attention on women at the federal level drew record funding for women running for Congress, a phenomenon that was not nearly as impactful on the state level.

Given that state races are far cheaper on average than congressional races, donors should consider increasing their investments in women running for state offices where dollars can be stretched farther.



While progress has been made, it is important to keep in mind that women still make up just roughly 36% of candidates, and while women are raising more, they still take in just about 33% of all political donations. [17] Given that women win their elections at roughly the same rate that they run, to reach parity, we need women to be at least 50% of the candidates. And as more women run, funding will be critical to their success.

The Ascend Fund is committed to reaching gender parity in U.S. politics by 2050 by building the pathway to public office for women, which includes structural reforms and cultural changes to level the playing field for women running for office.

For example, campaign finance reform that limits the influence of PACs and mega donors are key steps in ensuring that men and women have equal access to funding. Donors and PACs should also be incentivized to invest more in women and women of color, particularly at the state level where candidates receive far less media coverage and attention.

Despite women often outraising men, many perceive fundraising to be a key barrier to elected office and have to work harder than men to raise the funds needed for successful campaigns. Training is crucial to ensuring that women feel ready to run for office successfully.

The Ascend Fund’s partners are providing women with the fundraising skills and confidence they need to run for office – and win.

  • New American Leaders - Ready to Lead® training offers state of the art fundraising training for first- and second-generation Americans.

  • She Should Run's Incubator includes training on the basics of fundraising and building your network.



  1. FiveThirtyEight – How Money Effects Elections

  2. Open Secrets – Election Trends

  3. Center for Responsive Politics – PAC Profiles

  4. Center for American Women in Politics – Measuring Success: Women in 2020 Legislative Elections

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